There seems to be two opinions on the ability of the individual to make Sustainability choices: some believe we are all helpless pawns in the neoliberal capitalist machine and some people believe we are a bunch of lemmings choosing to head for a cliff – a surprising number of people believe both! And just like the lemming suicide myth, reality is a lot more complicated.
Every time we make a decision, from what to buy in the supermarket to whether to watch TV, our decision has a small impact on the environment. However, the choices in front of us are generally decided by somebody else. The options available can be destructive (e.g. planned obsolescence designed into products so we’re forced to buy again) or benign (e.g. B&Q selling LED light bulbs and refusing to stock patio heaters). Governments can help edit the choices through incentives (e.g. subsidies for electric vehicles) or penalties (e.g. the carbon floor price which has quietly killed off the UK’s coal fired power sector).
This means every section of society has a role to play: consumers should choose more sustainable options to send a signal to industry, retailers should see themselves as gatekeepers editing the choices available to those consumers, and industry should act to accelerate the maturity of sustainable products and services and phase out the destructive options. Politicians should lead, both morally and pragmatically, and voters should give them the incentive and political space to do so.
I have no doubt that this complex eco-system of socioeconomic actors will take us eventually to a Sustainable economy. To do it quickly enough, however, requires a critical mass of people in that eco-system making different decisions than before. This is why I don’t point the finger at any particular player: the blame game gets us nowhere. We need to identify what we can do – and do it. Fast.